Ordinarily, progressive Athens-Clarke County commissioners might be expected to oppose another massive student-oriented apartment complex in Athens, especially one in a sprawling, auto-centric side of town. But developers may have found the secret sauce to win approval: promises of affordable housing.
A multifamily complex on 47 acres across Lexington Road from the county jail including more than 1,000 bedrooms—as large as The Mark, the ginormous set of buildings on Oconee Street down the hill from downtown—drew an hour of discussion at the commission’s Feb. 2 voting meeting. After some commissioners objected to its scale and others fought for it based on the inclusion of some affordable units, the commission tabled a vote on a rezoning, allowing the development to move forward for a week.
Architect Bob Smith, representing a Dawsonville-based company called Lexington Associates LP, told commissioners that 15% of the units, or 66, will be set aside for tenants earning between 60–120% of the area median income of approximately $51,000. Another 54 units could be set aside as affordable with a $2 million investment from a recently created Lexington Road tax allocation district, an area where increased property taxes from growth are poured back into improvements within the district to spur economic development.
“It fills an important void for those who don’t qualify for federally subsidized programs and can’t afford market-rate rents,” said Smith (who is not to be confused with the Watkinsville mayor of the same name).
Commissioner Mariah Parker pointed to those affordable units in championing the development. In addition to providing affordable units managed by the Athens Land Trust, the development would bring down rents in the long run by increasing the housing supply, would reduce pressure on intown property owners to turn owner-occupied houses into rentals and would eventually transition from student to family housing, Parker said.
“I understand the concerns, but we have a real need for increased housing,” said Commissioner Melissa Link, who as a citizen parlayed her opposition to luxury student housing like the infamous Walmart/Selig development that became The Mark into her current commission seat. “UGA is increasing [its] enrollment. We’ve got a pretty desperate housing situation. There’s a lot of pressure on our intown neighborhoods. Unless we want to let these developers start bulldozing intown housing, we’ve got to look a little further out.”
When the Firefly Trail and Eastside stretch of the North Oconee Greenway are finished, residents will be able to bike downtown, Link said. The developer has also promised to build sidewalks fronting the property, a bus stop and a signalized intersection at the entrance, as well as four charging stations for electric vehicles, according to Smith.
But sidewalks are required anyway, Commissioner Mike Hamby pointed out. “If all it’s going to take is developers coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, we’ll put up a red light,’ I think a lot of developers are going to take us up on that opportunity,” he said. And Lexington Road outside the Loop is currently a five-lane corridor with just one hourly bus line running past that location, few crosswalks, gaps in sidewalks and nowhere in particular reachable by walking other than a few big-box stores and strip malls.
Hamby was not impressed by the promise of affordable housing. “There’s no reason we have to approve such a huge building to get the affordable housing we need,” he said. “Affordable housing with this developer was an afterthought. It didn’t pass muster with the planning commission, so they threw this in. That’s fine, better late than never, but this is a big development.”
The development’s sheer size also bothered Commissioner Carol Myers, as did the fact that the proposed three-and four-story buildings are surrounded by a neighborhood of modest single-family homes. “This will be a very, very large student housing development with segregated workforce housing in the front,” she said. And four charging stations, she added, are far from what will be needed a decade or so from now, with major automakers planning to transition completely away from internal combustion engines.
Commissioner Tim Denson—who is often aligned with Link and Parker—argued that the affordable housing component amounts to a density bonus, a policy commissioners have long discussed as a way to incentivize affordable housing. Another commissioner from the left wing, Jesse Houle, indicated ambivalence.
Commissioner Allison Wright—like Hamby, a moderate—raised concerns about the transparency of voting on such a major development on Feb. 9, a work session where votes aren’t usually taken. “Timing on this vote is very important for this project moving forward,” Smith said earlier in the meeting. The contract to buy the property expires Feb. 15, according to Parker.
“I’m not concerned about a developer’s timeline,” Hamby said. “I don’t think any of us should be concerned about that. I think we ought to be concerned about the impact on the community.”
Another multifamily development with an affordable component—this one on Tracy Street near Boulevard and the Pilgrim’s Pride plant—passed unanimously. It includes 88 one- and two-bedroom units and some commercial space for small retail stores. Brett Nave of local architectural firm Studio BNA said that nine units would be set aside for “workforce housing,” and the 66 one-bedroom units would be affordable for people making about 90% of the area median income.
In other business, the commission:
• tabled a proposal to rezone a parcel off Jefferson River Road for a subdivision while the developer prepares a binding site plan.
• approved a drive-through liquor store on Tallassee Road.
• delayed a vote on buying new Tasers for the Police Department.
• agreed to a SPLOST 2020 project priority list that puts a new courthouse, the Classic Center arena, an affordable housing development on the site of Bethel Midtown Village, broadband internet, an Eastside library and East Athens youth programs at the front of the line. The voter-approved 1% sales tax will run 11 years, which in retrospect troubled some commissioners, such as Denson, who said it should have been split into two shorter SPLOSTs.
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